We need truth in recycling labeling

I was outraged the day I learned that many manufacturers of single-use plastics put the “chasing arrows” recycling symbol on items regardless if they are actually recyclable.

SB 343

I thought I was doing everything right. Checking plastic containers for the recycling symbol. Thoroughly rinsing out my yogurt containers, berry boxes, etc, and placing them in the blue bin. But it turns out that it didn’t matter, and many of the items I was putting into the recycling were still ending up in the landfill because, wait for it… they’re not actually recyclable. 

I was outraged the day I learned that many manufacturers of single-use plastics put the “chasing arrows” recycling symbol on items regardless if they are actually recyclable.  Currently, no law prohibits producers from using the well known chasing-arrows symbol on non-recyclable materials, and as a result, some producers use the symbol on non-recyclable products to intentionally mislead consumers. 

This is “greenwashing” at it’s finest. Some manufacturers are clearly overusing the recycling symbol to make their products seem sustainable and encourage consumers to buy and use these products “guilt-free” because they think they are doing their part by tossing it in the blue bin. 

The reality is that in California, less than 15 percent of single-use plastic is recycled. Most ends up in the landfill, littering our streets, or polluting our waterways and oceans. 

In total, an estimated 13 million tons of plastic waste reaches the ocean every year, which is the equivalent to a dump truck every minute. Over time, these items can break down into smaller and smaller pieces called microplastics. As a result, scientists have discovered plastic pollution in every corner of the globe, from Lake Tahoe to the marine sanctuary of Monterey Bay.  They’ve also been found microplastics in our food, our beverages, and inside our bodies, potentially exposing us to hazardous compounds and additives. By one estimate, we each eat a credit card’s worth of plastic every single week.

Plastic waste is also creating a financial burden ultimately borne by consumers, ratepayers, and taxpayers, who have to pay to get rid of it. And improper labeling of plastic items is adding to that cost. When consumers place non-recyclable items into recycling bins, those items contaminate the truly recyclable items; and it is extremely expensive to sort out these contaminants. These increased costs are passed on to local residents through increasing garbage rates. 

Clearly, we need to move away from using so much single-use plastics, especially things that can’t be recycled. Nothing we use for a few minutes should harm public health and pollute our environment for hundreds of years. 

We need companies to start using recycled material to create their products, and ensure those products are made so that they can be recycled back into new products at the end of their life. But we first need transparency to help drive this shift. Right now, it is impossible for the marketplace to reward good actors, and avoid bad actors, if consumers are duped.

This month, the state legislature is considering legislation that would limit the use of the “chasing arrows” recycling symbol to only products that are actually recyclable. Senate Bill 343 (Senator Allen) would require manufacturers to be honest about the recyclability of their items, help end confusion for consumers, and bring down the costs associated with sending non-recyclable items to recycling centers. 

Consumers like myself want to make good choices for the environment and drive companies to do the same, but we first need accurate information to do so. The California State Senate should bring truth to labeling by passing SB 343 this legislative session. 

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Jenn Engstrom

State Director, CALPIRG

Jenn directs CALPIRG’s advocacy efforts, and is a leading voice in Sacramento and across the state on protecting public health, consumer protections and defending our democracy. Jenn has served on the CALPIRG board for the past two years before stepping into her current role. Most recently, as the deputy national director for the Student PIRGs, she helped run our national effort to mobilize hundreds of thousands of students to vote. She led CALPIRG’s organizing team for years and managed our citizen outreach offices across the state, running campaigns to ban single-use plastic bags, stop the overuse of antibiotics, and go 100% renewable energy. Jenn lives in Los Angeles, where she enjoys spending time at the beach and visiting the many amazing restaurants in her city.

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